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Are there any tips to quickly identify words in Spanish as 'male' or 'female'?

I am a new learner and have trouble with this.

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Related: spanish.stackexchange.com/q/322/12 –  Flimzy May 19 '13 at 5:53

4 Answers 4

First do not think about nouns as male and female. Nouns are either masculine and feminine. Most (but not all) nouns referring to male human beings and domestic animals are masculine, and most nouns referring to female human beings and domestic animals are feminine.

So, the first rule: if the noun refers to a male domestic animal (toro: bull), some male popular animal (león: lion), or male human being (papá: dad) the word is masculine. Female counterparts (vaca: cow, leona: lioness, mamá: mom) the word is feminine. Exceptions are rare, and mostly slangish, such as bombón (lollipop) used as slang for a beautiful woman (peach), is still a masculine word: Ese bombón está muy bueno.

If the word has a declination ending in -a, then that declination is feminine and the other is masculine: señor/señora, lobo/loba, presidente/presidenta, juez/jueza, modisto/modista. However, sometimes the non-declined form (presidente, juez) can be both feminine and masculine. This is particularly true with professions and titles that end in -e or consonant.

So, outside human beings and some common animals, each noun is either masculine or feminine with no relation to biological sex. The general rules are:

Nouns ending in -a are feminine. Except:

  • Nouns ending in -ista referring to a profession or ideological affiliation, which are both masculine and feminine: un comunista/una comunista, un estilista/una estilista, un dadaista/una dadaista, etc. except: un modisto/una modista.
  • Nouns deriving from Greek ending in -ma, such as poema, teorema, drama, etc. which are masculine. Note that most of these words also exist in English which may be a clue. except suma which is feminine.
  • Some particular exceptions such as un día.

Abstract nouns ending in -ción or -sión are feminine. Non-abstract nouns ending in -ión are usually masculine (camión, avión).

Most nouns ending in -z and -d are feminine. With several exceptions such as un lápiz, un alud, el Talmud.

Most other nouns are masculine, but beware the exceptions.

Proper nouns used as common nouns usually adopt the grammatical gender of the tacit companying common noun: el Elba (for el río Elba).

Some nouns are gender ambiguous, that mean that they can be masculine or feminine, according to dialect or stylistic preference. Words such as mar and calor are masculine in most modern dialects (el mar, el calor), however in some isolated conservative dialects (usually deemed uncultured) and in poetic language the can adopt a feminine gender (la mar, la calor).

Some nouns have masculine and feminine variants with different meanings, such as policía, where la policía is the police force, and el policia is a policeman. (however a policewoman should be la policía as well.)

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Marcial Prado's book "Practical Spanish Grammar" offers this mnemonic for determining noun gender:

Nouns ending in L-O-N-E-R-S are generally masculine (97%). Examples: un papel, un libro, un tren, un garaje, un color, un lunes Some exceptions: una calle, una clase, una llave, una mano, una muerte, una noche, una suerte, una tarde

Nouns ending in D-IÓN-Z-A are generally feminine (98%). Examples: una pared, una lección, una luz, una nariz, una mesa Some exceptions: un avión, un camión, un día, un lápiz

These are not absolute rules, but they will be right a very high percentage of the time.

Also note that there are a group of nouns ending in -ma, which in many cases are masculine. Examples: un problema, un tema, un programa, un dilema, un drama, un poema

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. These are pretty good, but you'll just have to memorize the exceptions.

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+1 thanks for sharing the mnemonic! –  Sironsse May 27 '13 at 18:19

As Trevor says, there's a general rule that states that nouns:

  • ending in a are feminine
  • ending in o are masculine

However, there are exceptions, and as usual with languages, those exceptions often happen in very common words, e.g. "mano" which ends in "o" but is feminine.

Then you have words with different endings (in other vowels, in consonants...) and those can be either masculine or feminine. There's no rule for them:

la leche / el coche
el camión / la canción
la ley / el buey

Also, you have to be aware that there are words which are feminine but take a masculine article. Those are words that start with an stressed "a" sound (agua, águila, hacha, hambre, aula...) and the masculine article is used to avoid cacophony. (Full explanation in Spanish in the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas)

These words, when used in singular, and introduced by an article, take the "el" article (or the indefinite article "un"):

el agua, el águila, un hacha, el aula

But they are feminine and should be used as such in all the other cases (in plural or when the word before the noun is not an article):

las aguas, unas águilas, mucha hambre, esta hacha, la bella águila

Many native speakers get this wrong and say things like mucho hambre, este agua...

So, it's not at all easy. As Trevor says in his answer, you'll have to learn them and they will end up sounding right.

For completeness, there are also a few words which can be both masculine or feminine (they are called nombres ambiguos): azúcar, arte, enzima, mar, margen... In general, those can be used as either masculine or feminine, but in some cases, the masculine is used in some cases and the feminine in others. For example, mar is generally used as masculine, but people related with the sea (sailors, fishers, etc.) often use it as feminine.

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2  
"la canción" does follow the 'rule' that words on -ción are almost always feminine (but just as with -a / -o, there are exceptions). also -dad (eg. la sociedad) is very typical for feminine nouns. And I'm sure there are some more 'rules'. –  Sironsse May 15 '13 at 11:29
    
¿"Arte" cuenta como ambiguo? No sería más bien una palabra femenina que se masculiniza en singular por la "a" tónica? (El arte / las artes). Por otra parte... ¿"enzima" cuenta como ambiguo? (La enzima / las enzimas). Muy buena respuesta en cualquier caso ;) +1 –  Arkana May 17 '13 at 8:39
    
Otra cosilla... "este agua" creo que está bien dicho. Como reza el refrán: "Nunca digas 'de este agua no beberé y este cura no es mi padre'". ;) –  Arkana May 17 '13 at 8:43
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@Arkana Los casos ambiguos, se pueden comprobar tanto en el link que he dado como en sus definiciones de la RAE. También es muy posible que algunas palabras vayan perdiendo su "ambigüedad" con el tiempo y el uso. Y respecto al agua, la RAE insiste en que para las palabras que empiezan con a tónica sólo cambian los artículos "la" y "una" por "el" y "un". Para los demás, la forma femenina. Lo dice en el link en mi respuesta, y también en la ortografía –  MikMik May 17 '13 at 9:39
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Más referencias a "esta agua" –  MikMik May 17 '13 at 9:41

There are a few general rules. For example, nouns ending with the letter "a" are generally feminine.

But in the long-term the best way to master this is two fold: (1) memorize the article when you learn the definition, and (2) read and listen to the language as much as possible.

Eventually the correct article will naturally sound "right."

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